Ive often wondered about paradoxes and mysteries of many countries. When I ponder over todays India, Im filled with less of hope and more of despair. A chance encounter in a remote island on other side of globe has left me completely mystified.
BEFORE I relate the encounter, I must briefly say that I am proud of my heritage. I wonder about the great minds that speculated about the nature of universe, as in Rig Veda, and left behind great Vedic speculations and literature. Our ancestors gave us the richness of Sanskrit traditions, like Mahabharata, Ramayana and works of Kalidasa and masterpieces from all regions of the country. It gave birth to great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and embraced Islam and Christianity too.
I get goose pimples when I stand and stare at the sublime majesty of temples of Madurai, Halebid, Belur, Konarak, Khajuraho, Palitana and Mount Abu, among others. I marvel at the sublime simplicity of Taj Mahal
, the greatest ode to love. Then, what about the frescos of Ajanta and the cave temples of Ellora? Only very advanced and vibrant cultures could have produced these marvels. Ours is the land of Buddha, Mahavir, Ashoka, Akbar right down to Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Sardar Patel, Aurobindo under whose contemporary shadow I grew up.
Our country stood for tolerance and catholicity of views. Without lifting a sword, India
conquered the heart and soul of entire Asia for centuries. Max Muller, Einstein, Will Durant and Mark Twain have called our land the “cradle of mankind,” “mother of all civilisations,” “contributor to many scientific discoveries of today” and “best flowering of the human mind,” etc. Volumes will be required to pay a tribute to our past, so these lines are a mere drop in the ocean.
So while the past, up to Independence and the writing of our Constitution, thrills me, I am mostly dismayed today. Shining India does not hearten me so much, for it turns the Nelson’s eye to abject poverty, corruption and state patronage to violence and hatred. Well-planned magnificent cities of my childhood, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Mysore, Bangalore, Jaipur
are today unrecognisable. No inspiring iconic structure has been built in our cities ever since the British left. Public Works Department (PWD) inspired concrete urban chaos has made them unlivable, and in whichever direction one looks, one is amazed at the drabness and filth and the loss of aesthetics.
Our much touted spirituality prances itself in the form of thousands of god men, who have built their empires, full of creature comforts. They mouth pious platitudes, while they allow themselves to be patronised by corrupt politicians and businessmen.
It was with this baggage on my mind that I was recently sitting half groggy at Honolulu airport, waiting to catch the 6:00 am flight to the Big Island. I was on my way to Hilo to get training and then walk inside the live crater of Kilauea volcano. This was much against the wishes of my family, but I love the exotic. To photograph, like all lava junkies, the red-hot oozing lava from up close. I saw a smart young lady with laptop in hand and pulling her stroller with the other. She could be any self-confident itinerant MNC executive, I thought.
Presently, she sat down next to me and without losing any time, she pulled out a hefty tome and started reading it. Bookworm that I am, curiosity got the better of me and I looked over her shoulders. She was reading an art book. The left page was a photograph of a magnificent Vishnu sculpture. “Excuse me, are you fond of Indian art?” I muttered. This sparked off the most amazing revelation I have ever had. She was professor of Asian arts at Hawaii University. Before that, she was working in New York. A bitter disappointment in love drove her to smoking, drinking and drugs. At one stage, she seriously decided to commit suicide. She sold all her assets and withdrew all the money in the bank. She wanted to splurge before taking her life. After considering different possibilities, she decided to find whether with her limited funds she could make a trip to India. She had been to China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia studying its arts, but not till then to India. So she decided to visit India, before her tryst with death.
The travel agent told her that with her budget, she could only join a group tour. She paid up, but the group fizzled out. So the travel agent worked out a very short two-week itinerary for her. She landed in Delhi, went to Jaipur, Khajuraho, and visited some cities in the south. The hustle and bustle of the chaotic Indian cities and the cheerfulness of the people, in spite of their abject poverty and filth around them, injected in her a will to live. She returned to New York with her bounce regained and started to rebuild her life. Now, she was a happy woman and on her way to give a lecture on Indian art, in far away Hawaii – the remotest archipelago in the world!
I asked her, if she had lived in an ashram or been under the tutelage of a Guru. “Taken to meditation?” “No, No” – was her reply. Obliquely I asked, if she had noticed holy cows blocking the traffic and filth near temples or whether “beggars and touts bothered her?” “No, No” – was her constant refrain. So all my direct and indirect cross-examination revealed that she had not picked up any life-giving mantra from any guru, or picked up any esoteric philosophy. It was just that amazing evidence of life all around her, in the midst of our functioning anarchy, that gave her the will to live and get a kick out of it. India had saved her life, she said repeatedly and taught her to live. I modestly acted as our country’s ambassador and accepted the compliments! Now can anyone explain this to me? This is a very improbable story, but true.